It was early January 1865. Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected president. He surprised or even shocked his wife Mary, Secretary of State William Seward and several others when he told them of his big idea. He wanted to get the 13th Amendment passed through the House of Representatives before the new Congress was installed at the end of the month. The Amendment would abolish slavery, yet it was 13 votes short when these same House members rejected it nine months earlier.
Seward tells Lincoln in a scene in the movie Lincoln, that he would need every Republican to vote for it (which never happens) and a virtually impossible 20 Democrats votes for passage. Seward asks “Why tarnish your invaluable luster with a battle in the House?…we will lose”. Lincoln responds, “I like our chances now”.
Dream or big idea pursuits are usually complex. They require finding the common intersection amongst many people with diverse interests, several areas of knowledge and managing our personal lives (family, friends, relationships, school, career, passions and other interests).
Lincoln led a country being ravaged by a war that took over 600,000 lives. His dream was to eliminate slavery while preserving the union. He was holding together a family devastated by the loss of his 11 year old son Willy.
While our dreams may not impact millions or be as consequential as Lincolns, there is so much we can learn from how Lincoln secured passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865.
He began by developing a strategy for each of the stakeholder groups while being careful not to offend any of them.
- Conservative Republicans – Lincoln appealed to Francis Blair, the founder of the Republican Party. The conservative Republicans were opposed to slavery, though preserving the Union was more important. This meant Lincoln had to approve Blair’s request for Blair to meet with Confederate delegates to negotiate terms to end the war. Lincoln believed ending the war without the 13th Amendment would prevent preserving the Union yet felt he had little choice.
- Radical Republicans – Led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens, these Republicans were fierce opponents of slavery and also wanted to inflict punitive damages on the Confederates for the war. Lincoln in the movie tries to temper Stevens in attempt to win other votes stating, “We shall oppose one another in the course of time, now we are working together. When people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow until they are ready”. He then tells Stevens that if you remain true to the North on your compass, you can end up getting stuck in a swamp.
- Democrats – Lincoln focused on Democrats that just lost re-election, thinking that they may be interested in a job. He had William Seward hire an intermediary to offer patronage and whatever else was required to get their support. Representative Thaddeus Stevens commented later that “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”(1).
- Border States (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, & West Virginia) – Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, yet he did not include the border states. The executive order only applied to granting freedom to slaves in the ten states that were in rebellion. He believed that if the border states were forced to abolish slavery, they would join the Confederates. While offending radical Republicans, he believed he needed to be ensured of winning the war. In time, each of the border states abolished slavery like the northern states.
- Confederates – In an effort to secure Democrat and conservative Republican votes, he had his emissaries meet with the Confederate delegates to negotiate an end to the war. The Confederates offered to end the war if Lincoln agreed to pull back on the 13th Amendment. Lincoln had to keep the Confederate’s offer secret from the Democrats and Conservative Republicans as he would have lost their support for the 13th Amendment. He kept the Confederates out of Washington to be able to say that negotiations to end the war were not happening in Washington.
- Union generals, troops and people – Lincoln regularly met with his generals and individual troops to rally their support and keep up their morale. He delivered an address to bring his country together after the devastating Gettysburg battles that cost so many lives.
- Family – Lincoln spent many hours with his son Tad who was 9 years old when his brother Willy died. Mary suffered from migraine headaches and depression that was acerbated by the loss of Willy. Mary was from a border state that had slavery and her half-brothers died as members of the Confederate Army.
When Lincoln found out he was still 8-10 dozen votes short a few days prior to the ballot, he began going one-on-one to secure potential supporters. He listened, showed respect and empathy to every opinion. He invited representatives to the White House. He made impromptu visits to Representatives’ homes. He showed vulnerability, resolve and willingness to listen those struggling with their decision.
It is hard to imagine achieving a dream more complicated than securing the 13th Amendment and ending the Civil War. Dream success begins with the search for the common intersection that sometimes only appears after many give and take discussions with the decision makers and stakeholders. In the end, it usually requires securing the trust of the people whose support you need. Support combined with believing and enduring grit to make almost anything happen.
(1) Donald, David Herbert (1996). Lincoln. Simon & Schuster. P554